Leo Joaquim is a 13-year-old orphan given the opportunity to go to the religious Camp Friend-Indeed in Connecticut during the summer of 1938 in the 1989 novel by the late actor and author Thomas Tryon.
Joaquim has suffered an unimaginable tragedy when he arrives at camp from the Pitt Institute orphanage but is determined to keep what he has endured a secret from the other campers, who immediately peg him as an outsider and nickname him Wacko Wackeem. Awkward and clumsy on the baseball diamond, Leo is drawn to more creative and artistic endeavors like playing the violin, reading literature and building models, which arouses the animosity of the book’s villain, his counselor Reece Hartsig.
As terrible camp counselors in pop culture go, Reece Hartsig might just be the worst. Rather than encourage Joaquim in his pursuits, he plots to undermine him at every turn and does his best to turn even the few campers who befriend him against him.
With the aloof camp director excusing everything as “boys will be boys,” Joaquim is mercilessly bullied at every turn. His counselor, whose father is a camp benefactor and is therefore spoiled and untouchable, is mainly concerned with winning the summer-long bunk competition and has little patience for campers who threaten his supremacy.
Leo does manage to befriend a star camper named Tiger, a Jewish Arts & Crafts counselor from Austria and a rich widow who lives in a castle near the camp, but he often says the wrong thing or is misunderstood by the other campers who don’t get his sense of humor or literary references.
Set when it is pre-World War II, Leo’s treatment draws some parallels to the rising of the Nazi party in Germany, which Reece’s father Rolfe unashamedly supports, and their now infamous youth camps where strength and athletic prowess were regarded over traits like character, creativity, compassion and sensitivity.
Descriptive in its detail of everyday camp life, Camp Friend-Indeed is colorfully brought to life through the characters as they participate in many of the same activities you’d still find at an overnight camp. There’s ghost stories and legend, ball games and nature walks, talent show skits and an ongoing Color War that the campers, particularly in Leo’s Jeremiah bunk, take way too seriously. On the surface, the camp is a fun place for boys to develop into fine young men; but as Leo experiences not too far beneath the surface is a world of secrets where campers are rewarded for cruelty by the induction into official and unofficial camp societies that only compound the problems campers who refuse to conform face.
This seedy underbelly of Camp Friend-Indeed looms large throughout the narrative as you sense the coming dread and Lord of the Flies-esque depravity that awaits once blame for the strange death of a camper is pinned on Joaquim and the full story of how he was orphaned comes out.
The climax, which I won’t give away, is jarring and unsatisfying but the build-up creates for an entertaining read that those who attended summer camp, particularly an all-boys camp with religious ties will especially appreciate. It’s too bad it was never adapted into a screenplay because a Lord of the Flies meets Stand By Me summer camp movie would be a welcome addition to the genre.
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